Well, finals are over so now I can get back to the writing I really enjoy doing. This is my first post since August, so I have decided to take the blog back to it’s roots. This is supposed to be a religion blog after all, and I feel like I’ve strayed too far away from the subject in my previous posts.
Anyway, in case you miraculously haven’t noticed, the holidays are upon us once again. Trees are being sold in parking lots, images of Santa Clause are literally everywhere, “Jingle Bells” is on repeat in department stores, and Fox News is taking personal offense at every instance of someone saying “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.” Tis the season!
Since I make no secret of my atheism, I am often asked by people (either in-person or online) about what atheists do during this time of year. It makes sense, given that Christmas is easily the biggest holiday in most parts of the West and it has a tendency to make people a bit more cognizant of religion. People will often ask me if I celebrate Christmas or if I do any sort of substitute holiday, and I often hear, “I could never be an atheist; I love Christmas too much” before I can respond. Interestingly, one of the main questions I get asked is whether or not I give/receive any presents at Christmas time. People ask me all this because they are looking for an explanation of the seemingly hypocritical nature of an atheist celebrating a religious holiday.
*Disclaimer – every atheist is an individual person and is going to go about celebrating/not celebrating holidays in their own way. What follows is my particular approach.*
We all know that Christmas is the Christian celebration of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, which happened roughly 2000 years ago. They believe that Jesus, who was born of a virgin, would be the Christ who saves all of mankind from its sins. Even though Biblical scholars agree that Jesus was born in early spring, his birth is celebrated on December 25th. This is the date that was adopted by the Catholic Church in the 4th century, so adopted because it coincided with the celebration of the pagan festival of the Winter Solstice, usually celebrated on December 20th, 21st, or 22nd. Since Christianity wasn’t especially prevalent in Europe yet, everyone who wasn’t a Christian was a pagan of one form or another. Pagans, for those who don’t know, are polytheists who generally worship the divinity they find in objects in nature; such as the sun, the moon, trees, rain, etc. Since everyone was already used to celebrating a holiday in late December, the Church thought it would be prudent to just substitute the birth of the Christ in for the Winter Solstice.
So right away, we see that Christmas is not free from the influence of paganism, even in its inception. Even though Christmas is based on the event of the birth of the Christ, almost nothing about Christmas as it is celebrated today is reflective of those events. Christmas trees, lights, Santa Clause, elves, flying reindeer, many Christmas carols, Christmas dinner, and even mistletoe are all added-on traditions to the celebration of the birth of the Christ. Finally, thanks to the rise and influence of capitalism, there are now abundant amounts of consumerism and materialism included in the holiday as well.
All of these add-ons and outside influences (whether it be from paganism, secularism, or economics) are the reason why I think that what started off as “Christmas” has since devolved into two separate holidays: Christmas and Xmas. Christmas is the celebration of the birth of the Christ, but nothing more. Xmas is everything else that has since become familiar tradition around this time of year. Xmas is leaving out cookies for Santa. Xmas is Black Friday shopping. Xmas is buying a tree and putting ornaments on it with your family. None of that is included in the doctrines of Christianity, so I feel no conflict about partaking in any of those traditions if I so choose. I know for a fact I feel no conflict about my favorite Xmas tradition, hanging lights on my house. I am Clark Griswold when it comes to Xmas lights. I feel no conflict about Xmas lights because 1) Jesus didn’t have electricity in the manger, and 2) decorative lights have nothing to do with the birth of the Christ. There’s simply nothing to feel hypocritical about.
The one crossover tradition (and it’s a big one) found both in the original Christmas story and the later “add-ons” is the tradition of gift giving. Putting presents under a coniferous tree was originally a Germanic tradition that has been incorporated into Christmas, and the Three Magi in the Christmas story brought gifts to baby Jesus after following a star to where he was born. People love giving and receiving gifts, so this is what people really mean when they ask if I “celebrate” Christmas. Personally, I see no hypocrisy in gift-giving around this time of year. As an adherent to secular humanism (the philosophy behind friendly atheism), I always encourage people to be more thoughtful of others, and if it takes a holiday season to accomplish that then so be it. I like it when people take the time to consider other people’s wants and needs before their own, and Christmas/Xmas generally does a good job of making people feel that way, if even for a short while. There should be a limit of course, as we all see every year the economic behemoth that the holiday has become. Hell, if retailers have had a crappy year they sometimes rely on Black Friday and Xmas shopping to boost revenue. Again, economics have nothing to do with the original Christmas story.
Christians sometimes purport to be offended at the spelling of “Xmas” with the X, as they say it separates the religious story from the holiday, something they don’t feel is right. That’s fine, but what some of those same people need to do is take a look in the mirror. Christians are the very people that fuel Christmas, and are primarily responsible for the reason why I feel we now have this “Xmas” distinction. It’s not Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, or secularists out there breaking down the doors of Wal-Mart and Best Buy the day after Thanksgiving. There might be a few for sure, but the majority of the people that feed into the consumerism of the holiday (a trait abhorred by Jesus of Nazareth by the way) are ones who claim to be followers of Jesus Christ. They are primarily the ones who contribute to the non-Christian myths as well, such as Santa and the flying reindeer. I think that if they don’t want Christmas to be further separated from its religious roots, then they shouldn’t perpetuate the myths and consumerism that divided Christmas/Xmas in the first place. Don’t get mad about the perversion of your religious holiday if you are helping to pervert it.
Last argument, in case you are still not convinced that there is no hypocrisy here. When I am asked if I celebrate Christmas, I ask if the other person celebrates Halloween. Unless the person is a Jehovah’s Witness, then I find that Christians almost invariably do some sort of Halloween celebration. They’ll let their kids go trick-or-treating, they’ll carve pumpkins, tell scary stories, and go to costume parties. If me putting a present under a tree is supposedly hypocritical, then surely pumpkin carving is hypocritical for a Christian to do. Pagans originally carved pumpkins as representatives of spirits or demons that they believed to be active or present during the festival of Samhain, which was an annual celebration of the fall harvest. These pagan spirits and demons do not exist in Christianity, but does a Christian feel a sense of hypocrisy when carving a pumpkin into a jack-o-lantern? No, of course not. Halloween, just like Christmas, has been largely separated from its religious roots and turned into a secular, culture-based holiday. It is easy to argue that Easter has also gone the same route.
The only time it would be hypocritical for an atheist to celebrate a religious holiday is if the atheist actively believes and partakes in the religious/divine origins of the holiday. I personally do not believe in the original Christmas story, but I still partake in the Western/American holiday of Xmas.